A Single Photo: Auto Safari Chapin or a Park Full of Hungry Dinosaurs?

GUATEMALA — Somewhere not far from the coast, just off the highway, is a sign for “Auto-Safari Chapin.” We had the time and drove down this long road reminiscent of another, fictional animal park also in Central America. As I am posting this, it is obvious we were not eaten by hungry dinosaurs, or, for that matter, hungry hippos, lions, ostriches, giraffes, or any of the other, many animals on this surprisingly lovely auto safari. Leica M9 Monochrome, 25mm f/4 Voigtlander Snapshot Skopar.

How to Keep a Journal (and be a Better Photographer)

05 May 2021         Wednesday           0911

By Andrew J. Tonn

GUATEMALA CITY (HOME)—Keeping a journal seems to be one of those ideas that the world repeatedly rediscovers.  Lately, I see it mentioned in articles on wellbeing, mindfulness, and productivity, and as a way to deal with the stresses and uncertainties of the pandemic.  These are all well and good and potentially effective but keeping a journal, is still something surrounded by confusion and fear which is unfortunate as it is once of the few activities accesible to almost anyone.

I have been keeping a journal off and on since I was  a freshman in High School and (without stating my exact age) I can say that means I have some years of experience in the process!  I have also lived most of my life professionally involved with the written word, studying English Literature as an undergraduate, Writing for my MA, and working as a newspaper reporter, an independent journalist, and media director for international relief organizations.  My current job requires a high level of organization and more technical, official reports and, obviously, I continue to write on my own as well as for various online publications.  And like everyone else I am trying to navigate the waters of the pandemic and the ongoing process of figuring out my own life.  Along the way I have learned a few things about keeping a journal.

I am not one for including too many disclaimers.  Obviously this is my own opinion, my own process, and you are free to use or discard any part of what you read here.  But I do mention it here for a reason.  A journal is a very personal thing and writing for many people is an activity fraught with uncertainty and misconceptions.  Lots of articles recommend you keep a journal but very few offer any good advice on how to do that.  Here is what I have learned in a life spent with letters.

First, and most practically, you need a journal.  Keep in mind that if money or access to buy a dedicated journal is an issue, all you really need is a pencil and some paper.  I have my preferences, which I will elaborate on, but any cheap spiral-bound notebook and #2 pencil is essentially as functional as anything else.

I have a strong preference for the regular, black, 8 by 5 inch Moleskine (or it’s many imitators) (WalMart sells one by Mead that is probably better made and definitely a bit cheaper).  If you’re not familiar with the Moelskine I will tell you why it is the best.  First of all it is a great, practical size.  I like the smaller Field Notes booklets for lists and notes (and longer writing in a pinch) as they fit in a pocket.  The Moleskine, however, is a good trade off between having enough space to get your pen or pencil moving across the page and fitting neatly in a bag or purse.  I find it slips perfectly into the back pocket of my Domke camera bags and can be held in one hand to take notes.  The Moleskine has a couple other features that makes it, for me, the journal of choice.  It is a standard, first and foremost, that has been made for decades.  Once it is full, it can go nearly on a shelf next to its predecessors.  My earlier journals were randomly bought and a disorganized mishmash of sizes and colors and cover materials.  Second, the physical book has several simple but well-thought-out features: an elastic band to keep it shut, a place-marker ribbon, and, to me the most important feature: a pocket inside the back cover that can be used to store receipts, ticket stubs, and other ephemera acquired during the same period the journal was in use.

Now that you have your journal, the big question is what to write?  The answer, quite simply, is write anything you want to.  The journal is the first draft of your own history.  You can show it to anyone you want to, but it is not intended for anyone else’s eyes.  Back in writing school there was one classmate who loved penning un-ironic imitations of 1950s pulp science fiction.  He was a nice guy and very earnest and he loved those tales of ray guns and tentacled moon monsters that had thrilled a generation growing up on the cusp of the space age.  I have no problem with this nor should anyone else.  Having a peculiar genre of escapist literature that makes you happy is a good thing.  This guy, however, was taking a senior-level creative writing course designed for students wishing to become published writers in a different day and age.  The student objected during his critique that he could write anything he wanted to, letting us and the professor know that this was a free country and these were the things he wanted to author.  The instructor was very clear and gentle with him and used the moment to teach us all a lesson.  He said, “Of course this is a free country and you are welcome to write whatever you want in your journal, in private, for your own enjoyment.  But we are here to learn how to write for publication.  In that world you are writing for a public and for an editor and for publishers so in essence you are free to write whatever you want and I am free to grade and critique it as I want.”  Another mentor of mine, Dennis, the City Editor to my cub reporter once told me, “Listen to your editor, Tonn.  You can disagree with an editor—if you can explain why—but an editor will always make your writing better.”

But we are not talking about writing for publication.  We are talking about the journal you are interested in keeping.  So what do you write in a journal?  As I said: ANYTHING.  Really, anything.  I think this more than anything else is what keeps people from beginning.  There is a blank page of paper in front of you and it belongs to you and no one else.  So use it, fill it, it is your space.  This means it can be the first draft of your great novel.  It can also be a grocery list.  It can be bad poetry (or good, but most is bad).  It can be lists of the places you want to travel to, the things you want to buy, your favorites types of dogs in descending order of preference.  It can be free-form rambling about your hopes and dreams and plans.  It can be eloquent story-telling, one true sentence after another.  It can and probably should be all of these things (you can skip the dog thing if you want).  In other words this is a space for you to write whatever you want without fear that you are doing it right or wrong.  There is no right or wrong in how you keep your own journal.

That pretty much covers the psychological.  Here, however, on the practical side, I am going to give some more concrete advice.  In my experience, creativity is aided by organization and preparedness.  As with photography, I can go out and create freely because my camera bags are in order.  I know I have the lenses and batteries and memory cards and film (and the journal and pens) I need and where they all are and thus can concentrate on making images.  With keeping a journal I do several similar things.  First, as we already discussed, I decided on one type of journal and don’t deviate from that choice other than by some necessity.  Second, I have developed a way of beginning each entry regardless of what that entry might be and this centers my mind as well as provides continuity and reference information.  It is quite simple and I am including a photo of how it looks.  I write the date (in military/European format, ie: 24 April 1872) on the left.  In the middle I write the day of the week, and on the right the time of day (23:46).  Then, before the entry begins, I write what is in essence a newspaper Dateline.  The Dateline is the place from which a story is filed, written in all capitals (GUATEMALA CITY—).  Keep in mind that this information alone is a valid journal entry.  If you don’t have time or inclination for more you can still go back and see that, yes, on April 24 of 1872, at just before midnight, I was in Guatemala City.  I often go a little farther with the “Dateline” as well and add a more precise location if I think it important.  Remember that this is your information so your “Dateline” can read, “AT WORK,” or, “HOME,” or anything else that tells you where you were.

The most important thing (as it is for pretty much everything else in life) is to begin.  If you want to keep a journal then go get a blank book and start writing in it.  The above is only a guideline but it’s good to have guidelines, particularly for unfamiliar activities.  And really that’s all you need: blank paper (most conveniently in book form), a writing utensil, and the will to put the two  together in conjunction with your thoughts.

The Voigtlander 25mm f/4 Snapshot Skopar

By Andrew J. Tonn

MONTERREY–The procession before the fight: Plaza Monumental de Toros, Monterrey,
Nuevo Leon, Mexico. 25mm f/4 Snapshot Skopar on Leica M9 Monochrome.

MONTERREY–I am a big fan of older wide-angle Voigtlander lenses on the Leica M9 Monochrome.  There is something in the combination of that sensor and those optics that, to my eye, create a particular visual magic.  It is well known that these older wide lenses have color-shifts on digital Leicas with color sensors (and I am not overly fond of the results from these lenses on my M-P 240 even when converted to black and white).  Images converted from the CCD sensor of a standard M9 might well be better but I don’t much care for them from the CMOS sensor of the M-P 240.  When, however, I discovered how incredible images looked from the combination of the M9 Monochrome and the 15mm f/4.5 Super-Wide Heliar, I began looking for a wide, but not so wide as 15mm, lens.  It was then that I discovered the 25mm Snapshot Skopar.  I was initially looking for a 21mm, open to a 28mm, and the more I read about the unique nature of this no-longer-produced 25mm optic, the more I decided it was the one I was looking for.  I found a good deal on a like-new silver one complete with hood and viewfinder, had it shipped to India, and before I ever took a photo my monochrome went down with the notorious sensor issue common to that camera.  Fast forward a year or two returning to the USA, a long repair on the Monochrome, another move, and I am finally getting to spend some time with this tiny little gem of a lens.

GUANAJUATO–Street scene, Guanajuato, Guanajuato, Mexico. 25mm f/4 Snapshot Skopar on Leica M9 Monochrome.

As far as I know, this lens is unique.  It is no longer produced but I would love to see a new edition of it put into production.  The Snapshot Skopar is a 25mm, f/4 lens made by Cosina Voigtlander.  It is tiny and weighs next to nothing.  The lens is not rangefinder coupled and framing is done through a hot shoe mounted accessory viewfinder.  What makes it unique and gives it its unique name is the focusing mechanism.  Unlike a regular uncoupled, scale-focus lens, the Snapshot Skopar has a small lever on the focus ring and specific-distance click stops.  The 25mm wide-angle focal length combined with a small aperture makes this lens specifically designed to be used in hyper focal mode.  The lens is marked in feet and meters but the click stops are at .7 meters, 1 meter, 1.5 meters, 3 meters, and infinity.  The lens can be set in between the click stops as well.  There is no hyper focal scale but, because of the mechanical operation of the lens, it isn’t needed.  You estimate the distance and click it to whatever is closest.  Given the f/4 aperture, this isn’t a low light lens.  It is designed, with intention, to be used for street photography.  With a lens like this mounted on a rangefinder, you can have the fastest and most responsive of all cameras for working the streets.  With focus already set and the camera in Aperture Priority, literally all one does is point and shoot, frame and shoot: a snap and a shot.  Snapshot.

GUANAJUATO–A small park with a statue of Mexican painter Diego Rivera, just around the corner from the house where he was born, Guanajuato, Guanajuato, Mexico. 25mm f/4 Snapshot Skopar on Leica M9 Monochrome.

The lens is built of metal in Japan but does feel slightly delicate (although I have had no problems with it and have taken it on a few trips).  It is, perhaps, a special lens that needs a little special handling.  I like it so much I want to buy another one in black.  I personally love the way these wide lenses render on the Leica monochrome.  I think it would also be a perfect lens to take out on a screwmount rangefinder such as a Leica IIIf.  I think the images are very clean, very lifelike, and with a unique, subtle, and distinct character.  They are very sharp and I would love to try a Voigtlander 21mm, a 28mm, and someday the original 12mm.  I am not, all in all, terribly fond of the rendering of modern Voigtlander 50mm lenses and I was never quite happy with the 35mm f/2.5 Color Skopar I had (although, in truth, I love many of the images I took with it, loved its tiny size, its lovely color signature, miss using it, and think perhaps really my only problem with it is that it wasn’t the lens I really wanted to begin with.)

GUANAJUATO–Looking over a mariachi band playing to an audience in the square, shot through the wrought iron fence of the central gazebo. Guanajuato, Guanajuato, Mexico. 25mm f/4 Snapshot Skopar on Leica M9 Monochrome.

The 25mm f/4 Snapshot Skopar takes some practice and I need to work with it more to put into memory the distances for quicker use on the street.  That being said, I only failed at a few shots due to missing focus.  It is a very forgiving lens and one I look forward to using much more.  Due to its size and weight there is little reason not to have it in my camera bag as part of the Monochrome’s permanent infrastructure.

GUATEMALA CITY–The 25mm f/4 Snapshot Skopar and auxiliary, hot-shoe mounted viewfinder on the Leica M9 Monochrome. The Voigtlander wide angle lenses seem to particularly shine on the CCD sensor of the original Monochrome. Note the focusing lever on the side of the lens.

HOW TO BE A BETTER PHOTOG: SHOOT A PHOTO ESSAY

All Photos taken with a Leica M6ttl and a Leica 50mm f/2 Summicron on Kodak 400CN film.  All Photos from the photo essay, “The Faces of Transcarpathia.” By Andrew J. Tonn ©

By Andrew J. Tonn

MONTERREY — Most photographers have favorite subjects and preferred themes.  Some are obvious and others less so. One person shoots flowers and selfies. Another also photographs flowers and themselves but, as with any art, the subject is not always just the subject.  Robert Mapplethorpe’s beautiful black and white studies of calla lilies and tulips are far from ordinary photos of pretty flowers and Graciela Iturbide’s self-portraits are far more than another reflexive selfie.

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HOW TO BE A BETTER PHOTOG: THE PHOTO WALK

Photo by Andrew Tonn

By Andrew J. Tonn

MUMBAI–Regardless of whether you are a seasoned professional, an avid amateur, or you just got your first camera last week, an excellent way to become a better photographer is to take photo-walks.  Walking, of and by itself: exploring a new city, a faraway island, a familiar old trail or a nearby neighborhood is one of life’s great pleasures with or without a camera. But this story is about photo walks and one walk in particular I took with my friend, the inimitable Sebastian John, one hot day over a year ago in Mumbai, India.  It was my last long walk in that city I called home for two years and similar to the first long walk I took by myself in Mumbai during the monsoon not long after we arrived. It was not quite as long as that watery hike, because Sebastian and I took our foray into Mumbai’s mad streets in the sweltering days just before the monsoon broke.  The heat in that time of year is very nearly hallucinatory. The temperature, combined with the crowds, humidity, smoke and noise, can only be completely appreciated by someone who has been there. Neither a thousand words nor a thousand photos can describe the reality of the streets of Mumbai.

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THESE FADING PLACES, BY 2018-2019 ESSAY WINNER MATT WHITE

These Fading Places, By Matt White

In the third week of the new year, I have crossed the Mississippi River from my home state of Arkansas and am passing slowly through little Mississippi towns like Rolling Fork and Cary under winter sunlight so pretty I wish it would never end. The Sunday streets are deserted, and the closer I get to the Louisiana border, it dawns on me that everyone is inside, glued to the Saint’s playoff game. Though not apt to follow sports closely, I appreciate high stakes and will always root for all things New Orleans, the great American city that she is. I am listening to the nail-biter on the radio and thinking of everyone I love in the Crescent City. On my approach into darkening Vicksburg: the crushing last-minute defeat just down river, a soon-to-be full moon emerging from a field in my rearview mirror. Evening is falling, and every direction I turn looks the way a Lucinda Williams song sounds.

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TRAVELS WITH LEICAS (AND THEIR FRIENDS THE NIKONS)


Mental Institution, Transcarpathia, Ukraine. Leica M6ttl, 50mm f/2 Summicron, Kodak 400CN.

By Andrew J. Tonn

MONTERREY–I was 11 or 12 years old and looking for my first camera.  My father told me, “Son, whatever type of camera you chose to be with is just fine with your mother and me just as long as it’s a Nikon.”

I had been perusing the centerfolds of camera magazines, ogling the Nikon bodies and yes, even the fine looking Olympus, Canon, Pentax, and Minoltas.  When my father was once looking to buy a camera, his photographic mentor Gino Rossi told him to buy the one he really wanted, to not compromise. My dad told me the same thing and what I really did want was a Nikon.  The others were pretty but they didn’t feel right for me. There was one caveat. I had read an article about Leicas and when I asked my dad about them he didn’t turn up his nose as he did at other brands. He said something about them being very good but too expensive — and for an 11-year-old about to spend his life savings of just over $100 that was the end of that.  I ended up buying a well-used Nikon FM black body. My dad gave me a 50mm Nikon f/1.8 E Series lens, since my life savings wouldn’t cover any optics, and that camera carried me years into the future — to work at newspapers and on my first international documentary assignments in Central America. Along the way it was joined by a Nikon F3 and a few other lenses, most notably the Nikkor 20mm f/2.8.  Finally, the old FM and the newer F3 were joined by a brand new Leica M6ttl. That my introduction to the M system and this is the story of that journey.

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THE LEICA-M 90mm ƒ/4 ELMAR C

MONTERREY — I have shot tightly framed portraits of people since I began taking photos at age ten or eleven.  A certain style of naturalistic headshot, the subject fully aware and looking straight into the lens, has been a major element of my work for my entire photographic life.  I still have almost every negative I ever shot and though I hope I have learned a thing or two along the way, I am still rather happy with many of the portraits I took of my classmates, teachers, and family back in Junior High and High School.  

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The 35mm f/2.5 Voigtlander Color Skopar

The oddly and charmingly named (but what Voigtlander is not oddly and charmingly named) 35mm Color Skopar is among the smallest and lightest 35mm lenses you can get in Leica M mount.  At around $500 new, it is also one of the least expensive. It is an excellent choice for your 35mm lens whether or not price is a consideration.

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THE WILDS or A JEEP AMONG LAND ROVERS

It may look like deepest Africa with fields stretching over rolling hills and wide open plains that resemble the Serengeti, but it is, in fact, The Wilds of Ohio. The Wilds is a nature preserve filled with African wildlife. Every so often, this wildlife refuge was home to an off-road event exclusive to those who owned a Land Rover. We brought a Jeep.

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